Plan the Ultimate Road Trip Through Northern Ireland

Whitepark Bay makes a pretty beach stop for a picnic lunch on your road trip |  © Umberto Nicoletti/ Flickr
Whitepark Bay makes a pretty beach stop for a picnic lunch on your road trip | © Umberto Nicoletti/ Flickr
Northern Ireland’s coast is a fantastic region to explore by road – it’s accessible, small, and your views of the coast will never be dull. You’ll also be able to stop off at beaches, nature reserves, or fascinating cities. If it sounds just right for you, read our guide to the ultimate road trip along the Causeway Coast.

The Causeway Coastal Route

The Causeway Coastal route is about the most exciting road trip you could plan through Northern Ireland, one that you won’t forget. Why is this route your best option? One: It hits all or most of Northern Ireland’s coastal destinations, including the most popular cliffs, heritage sites, and harbours. Two: There’s great flexibility in the trip and you can detour inland at certain points of the route if you want to veer off the beaten path.

And whether you have your own vehicle or not, the most memorable way to tour the Causeway Coast is from behind the wheel of a vintage camper van.

The Causeway Coastal Route is just non-stop views © Krzysztof Nahlik / Alamy Stock Photo

Day 1: Belfast

Belfast—Carrickfergus—The Gobbins

First off: the essentials. No matter what time of year you plan to come here – and ideally you should plan for the summer months – you’ll need to pack for a variety of weather conditions. Northern Ireland is famous for its unpredictable skies, so pack for light rain, afternoon heat, spring showers, and wind, especially along the Irish cliffs.

Start your trip by spending the day in Belfast, the Northern Ireland capital. Head through the Cathedral Quarter‘s cobbled streets and enjoy an Ulster fry-up in St George’s Market. On your way out of town, grab a picture of Samson & Goliath towering over the Belfast skyline and get set for the coast ahead.

Your first stop is the town of Carrickfergus, famous for its Anglo-Norman castle, one of the finest preserved Norman structures in Ireland. The Gobbins cliff path, a 20-minute drive north, opens in late spring to visitors. Carved into the cliff more than a century ago for Edwardian tourists, this 2mi (3km) walk along the cliffs of Islandmagee; it’s a remarkable trek on the edge of the Irish sea. Remember to pre-book and read our guidelines before you arrive.

See the route for Day 1 here.

A fishmonger at St George’s Market in Belfast – a must-stop for foodies | © Design Pics Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Day 2: The Glens of Antrim

Glenarm Castle and Gardens—The Glens of Antrim—Cushenden

Day 2 starts at Glenarm Estate and Walled Gardens, where you’ll find a horticulturist’s dream of plants to enjoy – including thousands of tulips celebrated at the annual tulip festival in May. Explore Ireland’s oldest walled gardens and statues, or 19th-century afternoon tea in the Mushroom House.

From here, head off to the Glens of Antrim. There are nine “glens”, each with a different route, so choose one or two that best suit, from Glencloye to Glenballyemon. From here, travel toward Cushendun village, a beautiful harbour town near Torr Head, modelled on Cornish villages. Top tip: this region is not huge and there’s relatively little driving per day, so don’t be afraid to explore two or more drives throughout the Glens – and check out Glenariff Forest Park on your route.

See the route for Day 2 here, including several alternative routes through the Glens of Antrim.

Bluebells on the Glens of Antrim, a pretty pitstop on your road trip | © scenicireland.com / Christopher Hill Photographic / Alamy Stock Photo

Day 3: Ballintoy and Carrick-a-Rede

Torr Head—Carrick-a-Rede—Ballintoy—Whitepark Bay

Halfway through and things are about to get windy, as you head further north up the coast. Take a detour to Torr Head, an enchanting cove only 13mi (18km) across the sea from Scotland. This was a lookout for Atlantic and transatlantic ships two centuries ago, and has fantastic views of Rathlin Island. Bring your binoculars to spot Rathlin’s puffin population and dolphins and porpoises in the water.

Day 3 is a trip to the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede island. To reach it you’ll need to cross a 100ft rope bridge, with beautiful views of the water below before you arrive and the old fisherman’s house, originally a post for salmon fishers. Don’t overlook the car park, which featured in an episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, as does your next destination. Ballintoy is recognizable as the fictional capital of Pyke in Game of Thones and a visitors’ favourite for their beautiful church buildings and harbour. A short walk from Ballintoy, Whitepark Bay is famous for its stretch of sandy beach and rocky shores, views of the Causeway coast and what’s claimed to be Ireland’s smallest church, St Gobban’s.

See the route for Day 3 here.

Take the rope bridge to reach Carrick-a-Rede island | © Dimitry Anikin / Unsplash

Day 4: the Giant’s Causeway

Giant’s Causeway—Bushmills—Dunluce Castle

Day 4 will see the longest drive on the entire Causeway route, at just under four hours. However, you’ll also arrive at Unesco-listed heritage site the Giant’s Causeway, a phenomenal 40,000-basalt-rock pattern on the northern coast that legend tells was a creation of the Irish giant, Fin MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill in Gaelic), as a guard against the Scottish enemy. Top tip: park up in the nearby town of Bushmills (where you can explore the home of Irish whiskey) and take the shuttle bus – it will save time. The Causeway is free to the public and you have a right to enter the site via the alternative route beside the Visitors Center, so don’t think you have to pay the full fee.

When you have fully explored the site, start the drive to Dunluce Castle, another Game of Thrones settlement, appearing as the Greyjoy kingdom in the Iron Islands. Today it remains one of Northern Ireland’s most photographed ruins and a favourite for location scouts (it hosted Jackie Chan’s The Medallion in 2003).

See the route for Day 4 here.

Dunluce Castle © scenicireland.com / Christopher Hill Photographic / Alamy Stock Photo

Day 5: The Downhill Strand

Downhill Demense—Roe Valley Country Park—Derry

It’s Day 5, and first on the list is the Downhill Strand and Demense, which hosts the beautiful Mussenden Temple on the cliffs. This is one of the most popular beaches in Northern Ireland. From here you’ll travel inland to Roe Valley Country Park, with more wildlife than you can count and more forest than you can hike. The park is on the outer region of Limavady, on the west coast.

The last point is another city escape in the border city of Derry/Londonderry. Explore the city walls and many cathedrals and as a previous City of Culture it has lots of art worth taking in. You can also enjoy the views of River Foyle running through the middle of the city with the Peace Bridge over it. When you’ve finished your road trip, why not continue into the Republic of Ireland for an extended stay?

See the route for Day 5 here.

Mussenden Temple and Downhill Strand in County Derry © scenicireland.com / Christopher Hill Photographic / Alamy Stock Photo